Wednesday, January 14, 2009


(I significantly rewrote the latter part of this ... if you saw it without pix, then this is new to you.)

So I gotta canoodle a little ... canoodle in the wheedle sense ... when you ruminate more than poop, you get indigestion. And when a writer fulminates over long dog walks and rewrites unwritten pieces in his head, this is the definition of dithering. I have been dithering. So watching American Idol for the second night running, time to poop or get off the pot. Apologies for the vulgarity, but it has the effect of embarrassing me out of inaction.

So she stands before us, porcelain and pharaonic, her smile fixed but not unnatural. I replied to my table mate, who asked who the speaker was as we ate our bagels ... reduced from the former full breakfast proffered before Lehman Brothers announced the end of the Dubya delusion ... that it did not matter. But it turned out that, for once, it did matter. This seemingly fragile prof changed my mind.

I was at the monthly staff meeting of my unit where around a hundred of my colleagues are ennobled by the words of others. In this case, it was the words of Carol Dweck who presented her research on mindset.

So ... aside number one ... the careful reader will google Professor Dweck and figure quickly where I work which I still call MRU (major research university) in the unlikely service of the notion that no one can search the university's name and find my tendentious scribblings. And ... aside number two ... I have been working for and around and under professors in one capacity or another for almost 25 years. They are a curious lot ... I almost joined them, but the vagaries of luck and determination and strategy left me a step short. I am not angry about that because I understand it and I enjoy being who I am. But few professors, I think, fully understand that interaction of luck, determination, and strategy that leads them to their heights. Yes, heights. For professors, in time, elevate and dilate. How they deal with this metaphorical inflation is what predicts how the ambient and ethereal staff, of whom I am one, experience them. Of course, their work alone predicts their impact. But I experience them as these figures who have lost contact with the ground even as they enthuse into the air. No judgment here. There are many routes from yonder to wherever one is heading.

So we are watching this deliberate and rarefied presentation by a women so tightly presented that I was disconcerted by the off-center pin on her lapel.

But she sold me.

She presents a distinction between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Fine. But the mind blow is that the fixed mindset confronted by defeat retreats because it assumes a fixed quantity of the quality at issue. So students who have been praised all their life because they are smart, do more poorly when confronted with failure than students who have been praised for working hard.

Of course, at first blush, one quickly finds ways to apply the distinction to oneself with self-satisfying effect. That can be complex. When I find myself to be of a fixed mindset, I challenge myself and find that my fixed mindset was actually a foil for my underlying growth mindset.

I do not want to be totally cynical here. I bought her book and got a signature, and I told her, totally genuinely, that hers was that first cogent and fully articulated exposition of an educational point of view that opposed the ludicrous self-esteem movement that made so many skeptics, myself included, ill. I did not use the words "ludicrous" or "ill". I said that I had always been intellectually repulsed by the idea of self-esteem. I'll return to her response below.

The point of global theories that, objectively, come and go, is their utility, even when that utility is ephemeral. Dweck is a professor of psychology, and there is a competition of ideas in a field like psychology that responds simultaneously and dialectically both to the ideas to which it is counterposed and to the pressures of the society which is that professoriate. For part of the elevation and dilation is the intensely involuted world of a department or a field. But in considering ideas, we have to leave behind the sordid immediacy of human society.

That is how she won me over.

I am not generally impressed by psychological ideas (sorry, Matt) but this was an idea of utility which also crystallized a recognizable contradiction in what we observe in ourselves and those around us. And the presentation had the effect of mirroring in its form the idea its ought to propagate. The rhetorician in me like that. Yes it did.

The notion that academics are doomed to inadequacy because the milieu from which they emerge is human and mediated and not free resigns itself to a fixed mindset in which there is only absolute and failed, and nothing in between. Neither the world nor thought works that way. The key thing here is the conversation, no matter how attenuated and bizarre it may appear from the outside. She made one comment that showed that ... "in the worst days of the self-esteem movement." So underlying much of this work was the opposition to a movement that swept American educational scholarship ... an idea that always made me unsettled because its simplicity defied the complexity that is human experience. If we just feel good about ourselves, then everything will be fine ... perhaps 8 years of the presidency of a man who clearly feels good about himself and is filled to the brim with self esteem knocked the stuffing out of that nonsense.

Many of us have been dismayed at the way in which "theory" swamped the "content" of so many disciplines, especially literary ones. But that movement appears to be waning. Certainly, after all the theory wars, the scholarly history being written and researched today is shaking the world. The bizarre a priori nonsense that passed as feminist scholarship in the 80s and 90s is in full retreat, and nobody seems to care about it any more except for the few diehards who made their careers there. Linguistics appears to be stuck in the theory maze ... but what will blow up that miasma? Abstention or involvement ... independence or engagement?

There is no single answer here, and I will try to return to this predicament in the future. But what impressed me about Dweck was that, notwithstanding the rarified element, has made a career of undermining a misleading discourse, and in the event provided some evidence of how minds confront learning.

I guess I am shadow boxing here.

So professor Dweck convinced me that she had an idea, well researched and sufficiently credentialed. And that was pleasurable.

After the talk, I bought the book and asked her for an autograph ... no autograph hound here, but handing the book to the author is so gratifying for her that how can I deny it to her. I introduced myself to her and told her that I produced the course catalog. I paraphrase, but she said, "Ah, but the one I want to meet is the room scheduler. I have a ten minute walk from my office to my classroom." I wanted to say, but did not, "O, woman, you have a ten minute walk across a beautiful campus, and when you arrive a bunch of spectacular youth hang on your every word. What torture it must be for you."

I decided not to allow that little moment of professorial self-pity undermine my excursus into happy psycho-thought.

That's going to have to be it ... American Idol is over ... and this is whatever it is. A number of half-expressed ideas, but the true joy of a blog is the commitment to one's own self that publishing the half-expressed implies. Whatever is half unexpressed will compel me tomorrow to fill in the blanks.

Photos by Arod. The top from Castro Street, I think; the middle from some street art within a block or two of Market and Van Ness; the bottom from one of a series of me in reflection. All are in some klutzy way illustrative of mindset.

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